URBAN AND RURAL DEVELOPMENT
By Diane Johnston
Vol. 1, No. 6, 1979, pp. 26
“…they were ready to face the odds and fight for what they fervently believe in — the future of the family farmer.” That was how Atlanta Journal reporter Charles Seabrook described the atmosphere surrounding the American Agricultural Movement’s (AAM) tractorcade to the nation’s capitol this January. It was the farmers’ second trip to Washington to protest what they felt were unjustly low farm incomes. En route in January, the Southern contingent of the AAM stopped by the Southern Regional Council’s office to hold a press briefing for the Atlanta media. It was an attempt on their part to help the media understand their complaints and to offer them an opportunity to explain their position relative to the rest of the nation as consumers.
Those present included Alvin Jenkins of Colorado, one of the AAM’s four founders, and Tommy Kersey of Unadilla, Georgia. Kersey is considered to be the head of the Georgia Agricultural Movement. They were accompanied by a handful of other AAM members, from Alabama, Texas, and even Montana.
During the two-hour press session, the farmers presented their grievances. Basing their case on the need to preserve the family farm, they explained what they felt is happening to traditional agriculture today.
The small farms, according to the Movement, are being taken over and bought out by large conglomerates. These “agribusinesses” can raise food prices beyond the consumers’ control, while small farmers can help moderate prices, the representatives of the group told those present. They explained that it is the middleman: the food processor/distributor, who is raising the nation’s food bills. The farmers called upon consumers to join together with farmers to combat the unnecessary inflation that occurs between the time the produce leaves the farm and when it is purchased by the consumer.
The AAM also called for increased income to farmers. Objecting to their stereotyped “country hick” image, they said they have a right to own other commodities, just as American city or suburban dwellers do. But with current low farm incomes, and high land and machinery costs, the farmers say it is difficult to make ends meet, much less have extra money left over to spend on leisure activities.
Alvin Jenkins explained that with the current land and equipment inflation rates, his college-age son could start a farm, and with working more than eight hours a day, seven days a week, without a vacation, he would still never break even. At the same time, Jenkins’ daughter could get a forty-hour a week job in a professional field, get three weeks’ vacation and bring in a sizable income. Jenkins explained that this is very disheartening for the farmer who would like to see his offspring carry on the family tradition.
The farmers also suggested that, with 70 percent of America’s farm families deriving some income from off-farm sources, higher farm incomes would have another benefit. With better farm profits, off-farm workers could quit their jobs and return to the farm, thus opening job opportunities for others. Conversely, if farm prices continue their current trends, rural families will be forced to leave their land and emigrate to the cities. There, the AAM says, they will find themselves unemployed, with little else to do but join the Welfare rolls.
The American Agricultural Movement representatives outlined their plan to increase farmers’ wages. In addition to eliminating the middleman, the AAM calls for the Carter Administration to raise the price floor on American farm goods. Wearied by the speculative nature of the American agricultural market, they demanded that the Government “Get the Boom and Bust out of food prices, especially wheat products!’
Throughout the briefing, the farm group made reference to a need to return to “parity” or 90 percent of parity. This ambiguous term refers loosely to the buying power of a farmer’s goods, relative to the prices of other commodities. Essentially, parity would mean that whatever commodities could be purchased with the income from a bushel of wheat in the years 19101914, the same number of goods should be purchasable at today’s wheat prices. To do so, wheat prices should be raised to meet other commodity prices, the AAM says.
American Agriculture also emphasized the necessity of breaking down international tariff barriers. With a world-wide free market system, American farmers would have a larger, more stable demand for their products. Food could be offered to needy foreign countries at more reasonable rates, while American farmers would enjoy higher, more dependable profits for their goods.
After departing the SRC office, the delegation joined the other farmers on their tractorcade to Washington, D.C. The long trek, characterized by cold weather conditions, breakdowns, delays at toll roads and slow traveling, brought an angry group of farmers to the Capitol the week of February 5. Bad weather and poor public relations made for grim results. Displays of violence and the estimated $2 million damage done to the Mall will probably only hurt their cause. Secretary of Agriculture Bob Bergland gave the farmers a very unsympathetic reception, echoing the Carter Administration’s recent policy of cutbacks.
Perhaps by 1980, the group will have organized enough to lobby more effectively. Meanwhile, the future of the small farmer, and perhaps the American Agricultural Movement, remains uncertain.